Perhaps director Joe Dowling and playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (provider of “additional material”) are right: as it stands Gilbert and Sullivan‘s gloriously English, emphatically 19th century H.M.S. Pinafore (at the Guthrie, through August 28) is too dry and dreary for 21st century Americans. The story, of the sea captain’s daughter torn between her love for the lowborn but achingly handsome sailor and the successful but proudly stodgy admiral (“I am the ruler of the Queen’s navee”), doesn’t grab contemporary audiences. The Big Revelation at the end is silly. The music thrills, of course, but the arrangements are slow and old-fashioned, trumpety and shrill.
So the Guthrie delivers up a glitzy, hammy, modern, hyper-energized, over-the-top production, filled with story lines and comic material not found in the original. The set (Frank Hallinan Flood) is huge: a steamship (rather than G&S’s man-o’-war) with a huge deck, suitable for David Bolger‘s fluid contemporary choreography. Andrew Cooke arranges the music a la musical comedy: heavy on the snare drum and keyboards, with occasional electric guitar and some Jimmy Buffett-esque steel drums. Hatcher fills the play with funny material (“We’ve redecorated the brig; now it’s a dungeon.”). His stuff is smart and for the most part it serves the play well.
But groaners abound. The soaring and patriotic “He Is An Englishman” (“In spite of all temptations / To belong to other nations / He remains an Englishman”) is given, at first, a straight-forward and pleasing rendition. But then we get a jazzy (and lengthy) reprise, its wild choreography culminating with the actor ripping off his bell-bottoms to reveal Union Jack jockeys. (This is, it’s worth mentioning, the second trou-dropping bit in the show.) The great Barbara Byrne plays… an historical personage who reveals, improbably, that in her youth she carried on hotly and heavily with Posthumous Ocular Richard (Deadeye Dick). Funny stuff to be sure, but not to be found in the original.
The acting is terrific, of course (this is the Guthrie). Ditto the singing; the wonderful G&S music comes through with resounding intensity. As the lovers Heather Lindell and Aleks Knezevich sing gorgeously and their scenes together are very funny. Robert O. Berdahl amazes as the Captain – although his physical, out-there approach caused me to occasionally fear for his mental health. Peter Thomson excels as Admiral Porter, with his potbelly and his goofy skipping dance. I adored Christina Baldwin as not-so-aptly-named Buttercup; perhaps it’s because her performance is relatively straightforward. It all works well. Indeed, high-energy/low-camp is emerging as a dominant Guthrie style: witness the recent 39 Steps and (to a lesser extent) Arms And The Man. These artists do it as well as it’s ever been done.
Does this approach please your Intrepid Reviewer? It does not. He has an allergy to performers who want us to believe they’re better than the play. He also suffers from great respect for traditional Gilbert and Sullivan.
But is the Guthrie’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore well done? It is. In fact, it’s beautifully done, as evidenced by the wildly enthusiastic reaction of the opening night audience. They applauded after every song and leapt to their feet for a standing ovation.
So you, Intrepid Review Reader, have a decision to make: does this sound like your cup o’ tea? If it does, go see Pinafore. You will have a grand time.
For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.